Past, present and future: Reflections on Black Thursday at UF 50 years later

On the morning of Thursday, April 15, 1971, roughly 70 Black students marched to the University of Florida’s main administrative building, Tigert Hall, with a list of six demands addressed to UF’s then-president Stephen O’Connell.

The Black Student Union, or BSU, had been trying for more than a year to present their suggestions to improve racial equity on campus to UF’s administration. Although the student population topped 20,000, all of the Black students at UF — about 350 students — would have filled only half of Carleton Auditorium.

That day, students tried three times to meet with O’Connell, growing more insistent with each attempt. Upon his third refusal, they flooded his office and the building’s corridor, following a plan to enact a peaceful protest similar to others taking place around the country.

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Now known as Black Thursday, the morning culminated in the arrests and suspensions of nearly every student in O’Connell’s office. Hundreds of people rallied in the Plaza of the Americas later that afternoon, partly to begin raising bail money for students. Eventually, 1,500 people returned to Tigert Hall in protest.

In a press conference the following Monday, Black student leaders demanded that O’Connell drop the charges against jailed students, lift their suspensions and commit to meeting BSU demands. When he refused, 123 Black students formally withdrew from the university. Dr. Roy Mitchell, the first Black administrator at UF, and Dr. Alroy Chow, among the university’s first Black tenured professors, resigned.

It was a pivotal moment in the university’s history. Black Thursday and the protests that followed led to the establishment of several recruitment and retention initiatives such as Project Upward Bound and the Carnegie Exchange Program. The movement also resulted in the establishment of a Black cultural center, something Black students and campus leaders had requested for years. The original Institute of Black Culture, housed in two-story home built in the 1920s, formally opened on February 11, 1972.

“Black Thursday was a culmination of events at the University of Florida and a mirror of what was going on around the nation.” – Dr. Betty Stewart-Fullwood, who withdrew from UF in protest following Black Thursday

A student holding a picture

“I don’t necessarily think about the legacy that I will be leaving for students in the future. What I am interested in doing is challenging folks in power to bring joy to the lives of others,” said Ebony Love, also 2020-21 chair of the National Black Law Students Association, Southern Region.
Photo by UF Division of Student Affairs

Tianna Dowie-Chin, a Ph.D. candidate studying Black feminism and critical race theory in higher education: Black Thursday didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the bubbling up of students having demands and requesting things and things not changing.

Matthew Cowley, a Ph.D. candidate studying race and racism in higher education: There’s these moments where the university was responding, but what we find is that there wasn’t real teeth and power given to the people who were supposed to be here to support students. But there’s also got to be some sort of thinking around how we celebrate the activism that’s happening now to make sure that we don’t need more Black Thursdays. We don’t want to ever need that to happen again in order for things to change.

Ebony Love, 2021 Juris Doctor candidate at the Levin College of Law: Not only are the demands informed by students from historically Black colleges and universities that transferred into predominantly white institutions – they’re also coming from the perspective of, “I need my white counterparts at this university to acknowledge that it is highly problematic that I’m the only Black person in certain spaces.”

The legacy of Black Thursday

Symphany Lindsay, 2020-21 BSU president: I think the legacy of Black Thursday persists today in the ways which we commit ourselves to social change and social activism. It signifies my community’s ability to organize in spite of oppressive opposition. It represents the Black community’s ability to remain resilient and dedicated to our own values and to demand equity in the spaces we occupy. And it represents the power students have that we oftentimes neglect.

A student holding a picture

The work of Black female activists often goes unrecognized, said Symphany Lindsay, 2020-21 BSU president. “Black women have had the capacity to be in that nurturing and that strong leadership position,” she said. “But often times, we are overlooked purposefully due to the intersectionality of sexism and racism we face.”
Photo by UF Division of Student Affairs

Lauredan Official, 2020-21 student body vice president: Sixty-six students were put on academic probation. Not a single protestor at UF ever has to suffer consequences like that again. And then at the time, did they know that? Did they – the 123 Black students who withdrew – know the impact they would have on us? Maybe not. But they chose to take action.

Love: My hope is that when we have conversations about Black Thursday, we renew that sense of spirit to create spaces where we’re talking about our stories – talking about the stories that are hidden in the way Black people experience society. It was an event that took place in the larger civil rights movement. And we made history here in Gainesville. A real part of the civil rights movement happened at the University of Florida on the steps of Tigert Hall.

Reflections from current students

Lindsay: As a student leader and as a Black student leader, I definitely think it’s significant that we continue to do social advocacy and social justice initiatives to make sure that we not only fight for our own rights and equity, but create a more equitable environment for those that look, speak and have similar experiences as us – and hopefully create a better world and system for everybody.

Love: So when you see the same demands being uplifted, it’s because we need these systems in place to put everybody – not just Black students, all students of all marginalized backgrounds – on the same footing.

A student holding a picture

“Because students chose to take action that day, the University of Florida administration had to make changes. The price protestors on Black Thursday paid gave credit to me 50 years later,” said Lauredan Official, 2020-21 student body vice president at UF. “That’s the impact of the legacy.” Photo by UF Division of Student Affairs

Official: I believe that doing nothing is not an option. Even if you choose to not do anything, decisions are being made about you. I think it’s inherently a certain level of privilege to believe you won’t ever be affected.

Love: One of my personal values is to have the courage to speak up, but also in ways that other people can understand where this pain is coming from so that we can create joy for others.

Lindsay: It’s important to address how we are being treated, but it’s important to acknowledge that we are human beings with feelings and desires to have a healthy understanding of our own identities.

Dowie-Chin: I think one of the most powerful things about this moment is that I feel like if we talked about systemic issues even two years ago, people would reject that. Now that we can admit it’s a systemic thing, what do we do about a system? It doesn’t change with temporary things. It changes with policy. And while Black people need to be at the table­, it’s not solely on us to change things.

Stewart-Fullwood co-wrote a novel titled African Americans at the University of Florida, which includes a chapter about Black Thursday.

Read interviews with with key organizers from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program about Black Thursday and Black history in Florida.

Learn more about Lincoln High School.

Writer: Halle Marchese,

Sources: Betty Stewart-Fullwood;
Tianna Dowie-Chin;
Matthew Cowley;
Ebony Love;
Symphany Lindsay;
Lauredan Official